Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #21: "The Inspector General" (1949)

No, Danny Kaye does not play a 50-foot-tall drag queen in The Inspector General.

The flick: The Inspector General (Warner Brothers, 1949) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.7

Director: Henry Koster (Harvey, The Bishop's Wife, The Robe)

Actors of note: Danny Kaye (White Christmas, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Court Jester), Walter Slezak (Hitchock's Lifeboat; People Will Talk), Barbara Bates (All About Eve, Cheaper by the Dozen [the original]), Elsa Lanchester (Mary Poppins, Murder By Death, the title role in The Bride of Frankenstein), Gene Lockhart (Miracle on 34th Street; father of actress June Lockhart, aka the mom on Lassie and Lost in Space), Alan Hale (Little John in The Adventures of Robin Hood, father of Alan Hale, Jr., aka the Skipper on Gilligan's Island), Walter Catlett (Bringing Up Baby; voice of J. Worthington Foulfellow in Pinocchio), Rhys Williams (Johnny Guitar, How Green was My Valley)

Alan Hale, Sr.
The gist of it: During the time of Napoleon (early 1800s), innocent naif Georgi (Kaye) and ruthless Yakov (Slezak) travel from village to village selling patent medicine. But Georgi spills the beans that their "medicine" is worthless, and he and his partner are chased out of town by an angry mob. Curtly dismissed by Yakov after this disgrace, Georgi straggles into the small village of Brodny, where the corrupt Mayor (Lockhart) runs an incredibly incompetent and buffoonish government (whose ranks include Hale). The Mayor gets word from his brother that Napoleon has dispatched a strict Inspector General who is traveling through the empire and executing any dishonest politicians he finds. Since the entire government of Brodny is dishonest, this sends the Mayor and his cronies into a panic.

Georgi, who had been unfairly arrested as a horse thief and was about to be executed, is mistaken for the Inspector General, and soon all of Brodny is falling at his feet and offering him more bribes than he can handle. Georgi just wants to get the heck out of town before his true identity is discovered. Just as the false Inspector is being given a royal sendoff, though, Yakov arrives in Brodny and exploits his connection to Georgi. Ultimately, Yakov persuades the Mayor and his officials that Georgi knows too much and has to be executed. Then, of course, the real Inspector General shows up to complicate matters further. With all this going on, Georgi barely has time to romance Leza (Bates), the servant girl who has fallen in love with him.

Danny Kaye: Nervous and exhausted.
My take: Danny Kaye is sort of a one-man circus, an all-around entertainer. He sings. He dances. He does acrobatic physical comedy. He makes funny faces. And, most famously of all, he recites rapid-fire, tongue-twisting rhymes, generally as part of elaborate and lengthy musical numbers. Seven years before making this film, Kaye was hospitalized for "nervous exhaustion." I don't doubt it. His character in this film, Georgi, is constantly nervous and expends so much energy by running (and hopping) around in virtually every scene that he's bound to be exhausted. I was exhausted just watching him!

Poor Georgi never gets a chance to relax or enjoy himself for even a second in this film. Food and drink are constantly being snatched away from him, even after he's accidentally promoted from beggar to Inspector General. Your appreciation for The Inspector General will depend largely on how amusing you find Danny Kaye to be. At first, his twitchy, sputtering, clownish presence was too much for me to take in such a large dose. But as the film wore on, I got used to his style of high-energy comedy and started to appreciate Kaye's undeniable talent. It helped that one of my own musical heroes, Tom Lehrer, has repeatedly cited Kaye as a major influence, though Lehrer is much darker and more cynical than his guileless, childlike mentor.

I should point out that The Inspector General is much, much fancier than any of the previous films in this Mill Creek boxed set. Compared to the low-budget flicks from Monogram and PRC, this Warner Brothers production in (now-badly-faded) Technicolor is like Gone with the Wind and Cleopatra rolled into one.

Is it funny: In spots, certainly. I found Danny Kaye more impressive than truly funny, but his musical numbers -- and there are a bunch of them in this film -- still stand as notable achievements. In particular, there is one song in which Georgi ponders how exactly an Inspector General should behave. He dreams up three alternate versions of himself, and then all four Danny Kayes are harmonizing onscreen.

Most of the actual laughs in The Inspector General come from its supporting characters. Elsa Lanchester, for instance, plays the Mayor's flighty, unsatisfied wife who takes a shine to Georgi and and wants to run away with him... as he tries to run away from her. The Mayor and his crooked cohorts are all pretty funny, too, and it's fun to watch them alternately suck up to Kaye (when they think he's a big shot) then treat him like dirt (when they find out he isn't) then suck up to him again (when they're re-convinced of his status). It's a lot like the plot of the classic Fawlty Towers episode, "The Hotel Inspectors" in which inept innkeeper Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) continually misidentifies guests as being hotel inspectors and then treats them terribly once he finds out they're not.

My grade: B+

P.S. - Not a single African-American stereotype here, but Yakov is a pretty negative representative for Gypsy culture.

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